Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Calling of the Fishers

Church of Our Saviour, Jan. 27. 2008

Those newly called fishermen did more than repent- as in turn around. They did an about face, dropped their nets and ran. And they followed the riveting stranger who had called them all their lives.

The people who get called in the bible are rarely graceful, sophisticated or even talented people. Elisha, the Old Testament protégé of Elijah was herding cattle- twelve, to be exact- when Elijah came with the call. Perhaps overdoing it, Elisha not only dropped the plow, but immediately slaughtered all of 12 of his oxen and fed them to the surrounding people.

The Old Testament prophet Amos protested loudly when the priest Amaziah urged him to prophesy:

“I am no prophet and no prophet’s son- I am a herdsman and a tender of sycamore trees.”

He nonetheless begins immediately to spout prophecy to rival any Old Testament prophet, warning of doom, gloom and death, as was the OT prophet’s want.

Those who are called traditionally complain of being slow of tongue like Moses or of having unclean lips, like Isaiah. But even with a lisp or a stutter, Moses was able to confront the pharaoh and tell him to let his people go, and even with those initially unclean lips Isaiah became the longest-winded prophet in the Old Testament.

But interestingly, the New Testament fishermen didn’t hesitate for an instant. But their stuttering, their foibles came to light after they started to follow the call. Peter up-braided Jesus for his plan to go to Jerusalem to complete HIS calling, and later tried to walk on water and sank like – well, like a rock. He denied even knowing Jesus three times the night before the crucifixion. And even after Jesus died, and Peter was the leader of the church, he seemed to forget Jesus’ ideas of radical inclusiveness, wanting to exclude Gentiles from being Christians. But it was on this clueless mortal that Jesus built his church. Good news for us all.

James and John were famous for their cluelessness- offering to send down fire and burn to cinders the Samaritans who did not welcome Jesus, and asking Jesus for a special seat at his right and left hands when he came into his glory. They had no idea what they were asking for.

My own calling to the priesthood followed the model of the Old Testament prophets. Although I got my calling in my basement office next to my computer and push-button phone, the old-fashioned fearsome strength of this call stunned me. And even as I felt a great joy at the rightness of the calling, once I found out what the cost would be, in terms of tuition, time away from my family and untold hours of volunteer labor, I determined to go lie down somewhere quiet and wait until the call went away. It never did.

I later realized that what I had was something of a genetic tendency, because my grandfather, the Rev. Herschel Davis Harkins was a minister, and now my cousin The Rev. John Cory is one as well. I recently found a story my grandfather wrote about his calling. Unlike my modern digital office experience, his call started on a freight train and continued in a hotel room. He speaks several times of light- sunshine, glistening leaves, a golden beam of light:
He wrote:

A long freight train rambling near Riverside, California, slowly passed through an olive grove. The leaves glistened with dew in the morning sunshine. Suddenly, I saw the figure of a man kneeling in the shadow of the trees. The posture was one of prayer, the true picture of Christ in Gethsemane was clear and beautiful. The artist was a spirit. Someone was praying for me and sent that picture which was the turning point of my life…. I was converted in a hotel room, and a thousand golden bells softly called me to the miracle of dining with the Holy Savior. My heart was filled with great joy. A door of wonderful service was opened to me. God had called me to tell the story of Jesus and his great love.

My grandfather was a minister for 65 years with his remarkable wife Bessie at his side ministering along with him the whole time. They were like those fishermen in the New Testament- they jumped and never looked back. At the Pier in Pacifica, a city where my grandfather ministered for years, there is a plaque that reads: “The Herschel D. Harkins Pier. He was a fisher of men.” But he was certainly not perfect- my mother could testify to that. He continued all his life to drop everything, including his family’s needs at times, every time he heard a convincing call.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew a lot about the cost of discipleship, and he wrote a book with that name. He was a founding member of the Confessing Church in Germany, which was out-lawed by the Nazis. He pushed his church to side with and protect the persecuted Jews, and he raised and spent money to help Jews escape Germany. He was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, was imprisoned for 2 years and then hanged three weeks before the end of the Second World War. He describes the calling of the fishermen like this:

Until that day, everything had been different. They could remain in obscurity, in the quiet of the land, observing the law and waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But now he has come, and his call goes forth. Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting. They must rise and follow him. The call frees them from all earthly ties and binds them to Jesus Christ alone.

What is a calling? Whether it is a true calling or not, we are drawn to it because it represent for us a movement from darkness to light- even from death to life.

When we get our call- we may stutter- we may feel unclean, unworthy- we may even make a hash of it. But we are supposed to follow that call. If it feels like moving out of deep darkness into the light, if it feels like leaving doom and gloom and coming to the dawn, if it feels like moving from injustice to justice, from hatred into love, from hollowness to fulfillment, you are probably supposed to follow that calling, even thought there will be a cost.

But perhaps a greater cost is NOT following the call- living a life, as Diechtrich Bonheoffer would put it, of “cheap grace” -grace that comforts only you, and never the least of your brethren. But even if we chose that life of comfortable darkness, it is only a matter of time before we will begin to long for the light.